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Feature: The Ugliness of Obsession

Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub

The insurance tycoon wanted for nothing, and he planned to keep it that way. At a nursery in West Los Angeles, he set his sights on a new cross of cymbidium orchid. He told the owner that he would pay any amount, but the orchid was not available at any price: Flowering for the first time, it was not yet divisible. The businessman left without the desired orchid, and it was driving him mad.

The grower was checking plants after the nursery had closed when he heard a strange noise. Turning around, he found the insurance tycoon, shamefaced, a twisted orchid bulb in his hand. “We never should have shown him that orchid,” the grower had said. “It was cruel—we knew he had the weakness.” He continued, “We shouldn’t have shown it to him and not sold it to him because he couldn’t stand to not have it. He became obsessed.”

Like an exceptional gem, there may be only one of a certain orchid in the world. “It’s at a certain level that people realize there are rare and very valuable orchids that they may not be able to own,” says Andy Easton, a friend of the nursery owner. “No money in the world may be enough because the person who owns them wants to keep them.”

Easton oversees orchid collections and the community education programs for the American Orchid Society in Delray Beach, Fla., and understands the allure firsthand. He was hooked 43 years ago, at age 10, when a family friend gave him an orchid cutting. A short time later, at a racetrack in his native New Zealand, he parlayed $50 into $2,000, enough to buy a car at the time. But Easton was already obsessed—and not with cars. To the horror of his parents, he spent half of his winnings on orchids.

Orchids, George Bernard Shaw once said, are like courtesans, seducing and tempting their collectors. No plant family is as large or as diverse as the orchid family, which numbers about 25,000 species and more than 200,000 hybrids. Those under the exotic plants’ spell fall in love with their dramatic colors, intoxicating scents, and veined pouches.

Some collectors are attracted by the lemon or mango fragrance of Chinese cymbidiums. Others covet the rarest slipper orchids, the most common type of orchids smuggled from tropical rain forests. Some orchids bloom continuously, some only once a year; some have lots of flowers, some just one; some have blooms you must squint to see, others have blooms the size of Frisbees. And some orchids, thanks to divisions and propagations, continue to flower today after more than 100 years.

Part of what casts the spell seems to be orchids’ unusual and alluring resemblance to male and female sex organs, says Eric Hansen, who spent seven years studying people infatuated with orchids for his novel Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy (Pantheon Books, February 2000).

The name lady’s slipper, for example, is derived from the cup-shaped pouch that some say resembles a small shoe and others say looks like a testicle. Once you look at orchids in full bloom, you can see how humans, like insects, are attracted to their sexy veined pouches, erect curving shafts, and glistening pink folds.

“The big, beautiful, sexy flowers can get an orchid lover’s heart pounding,” says Hansen. “But then you have people who can’t resist trying to grow a plant like a Bulbophyllum beccarii that attracts hordes of flies and is said to smell like a thousand dead elephants.”

Variety and beauty are only part of the attraction. Growing orchids presents a tremendous test of character and stamina. Getting just a simple orchid to flower well is exceptionally difficult—and incredibly satisfying. Collectors brag about overcoming battles with bugs and weather, or the fact that they had 110 blooms last year and 130 blooms this year.

“If I were marooned on a desert island and could take only one thing with me, it would be a group of orchids,” says Easton, who once owned an orchid nursery with 60,000 plants. “I would never take African violets because I would be bored. But orchids would keep me going—I might kill them or not be able to flower them. They are more challenging than most plants.”

Collectors are as varied as their prized orchids—ranging from those who accumulate orchids like others collect porcelain boxes to those who get so zealous and protective that they act like they are displaying rare gems when they show their collections. Most fanatical collectors—orchid collectors included—are known to do things otherwise rational people would not nor-mally do. Some risk their reputations, like the insurance tycoon, others deplete their savings to buy rare orchids or create foundations to care for the plants after their deaths, and some value the plants over human life.

Consider Hansen’s tale of a young Frenchman who lived in a Paris apartment with his mother and thousands of rare orchids. The man sprayed insecticides and toxic chemicals on the orchid collection, which took over every room and a hallway. In his spare time, he played the harpsichord and fired automatic weapons into the walls of the bedroom.

Judy Cook is an expert on obsession and orchids. Besides being a psychiatrist who treats patients with addictive personalities, she also has about 10,000 orchids in two greenhouses in Gadsden, Ala. “Are people almost fanatic about them? Yes,” she says. “Do they get involved to almost the impairment of good judgment and finances? Yes.”

Cook compares orchid people to collectors of rare art or Thoroughbreds. Orchids are in their blood, and they often lose some of the savvy and common sense they had to have to make their money. In other words, obsession and addiction are interchangeable. People have been known to spend $25,000 or more on one plant, though the price of an award-winning orchid usually is between $3,000 and $5,000.

But sometimes, the passion of orchidists is shown through action rather than expenditure, as with Hiroshi Ikarashi, a reclusive Japanese real estate developer who owns dozens of commercial properties in Kobe. Ikarashi, reacting to the early morning earthquake of 1994, rushed naked from his demolished home to see what happened to the orchids in his greenhouse. “Thanks to God,” he told Hansen, “the greenhouse all broken, but plants only knocked on their side. I tell you, I am astonish! But then I begin to wonder: Where my wife in the rubble of our house?”

Hansen has heard it all. “Before long,” he says, “all else in life begins to fade into insignificance, including one’s marriage, business, health, and financial well-being. Orchids can become a lifelong passion.”

That passion sometimes erupts into mayhem, gunfights, and murder. Two northern California orchid growers ended up in a greenhouse gun battle over which colors to introduce into their breeding program for supermarket-quality Phalaenopsis hybrids. The colors were never decided, according to Hansen, because one man was killed and the other went to jail.

Most orchid collectors, however, are not so extreme—or dangerous. Joseph Dixler, a retired graphic arts equipment manufacturer who lives in Highland Park, Ill., has about 3,000 orchids in his greenhouse. Twelve years ago, his wife received an orchid as a thank-you gift, and since then, his collection has grown to occupy a 20-by-50-foot greenhouse attached to their house.

Dixler’s greenhouse is a scientific laboratory. He uses two dissecting microscopes to identify orchids as well as diseases and pests. A misting system keeps humidity levels at 80 percent in the summer, lower in the winter. Panels monitor the humidity and regulate evaporators, heaters, and coolers to keep the greenhouse at 68 degrees during the day and 58 degrees at night. A reverse osmosis system filters impurities in the water and adds trace minerals through fertilizers. With every watering, the plants are fed fertilizers—different ones depending on the time of the year.

“I started out with a light room and ended up with a greenhouse,” says Dixler. “I loved the challenge. Some of the orchids were easy to grow. Others were difficult to grow, and I wanted to be able to have the environment to grow the more difficult ones in conditions that are not tropical.”

But the greenhouse is only a small glimpse at his orchid mania. Dixler and his wife have traveled the world in search of rare orchids. They have been to more than 100 countries, on every continent except Antarctica. In 1994, they went to Indonesia to see a black orchid in the wild. After landing in Borneo, they hired a driver to take them to the Mahakam River. From there, they rented a boat and crew to travel by water for a day and a half. They transferred to motorized dugout canoes to go another few hours before a Land Rover carried them over 10 miles of unmarked, potholed, dirt road.

Finally, at their destination, they followed a park ranger down a narrow path. The sun, reflecting on the white sand, made the 90-degree heat unbearable. Then, in the lush vegetation of the rain forest, the temperature suddenly dropped 20 degrees. Surrounding them was Coelogyne pandurata, sometimes called the black orchid because of the dark markings on its lip.

It is illegal to disturb orchids in the wild, so Dixler was thrilled that the ranger allowed him to pick up orchids that had fallen to the ground. “The high that I experienced walking through this protected area with an unimaginable number of black orchids was incredible,” he says. “Knowing that they have been there for hundreds, maybe thousands of years before me and would continue to be there long after I am gone, makes one feel quite insig-nificant in the grand scheme of nature.”

Other collectors find no need to travel beyond their own greenhouses—the joy comes from award-winning collections. When you approach the front door of William G. and Kit Pannill’s Palm Beach house on Lake Worth, you cannot help being enchanted by cascades of orange, yellow, and blue orchids hanging from the trees. The Pannills winter in Florida, one of the few places in the United States where orchids can grow outside all year. The rest of the year is divided between North Caro-lina and Virginia.

Kit’s involvement and financial contributions to the American Orchid Society have won her a living tribute: Vanda “Kit Pannill”—an orchid with a champagne-color bloom and peach highlights named for her. “I was shocked,” she says. “I burst into tears when they told me they had named an orchid after me.”

Her collection may be smaller than Dixler’s or Easton’s, but the 200 flowers are housed in an architectural wonder. Out her kitchen door, down a short walkway, and through a white wooden gate, the 20-by-40-foot greenhouse looks like it belongs in 19th-century England. It features elaborate trelliswork, roof finials, and a sunburst transom over the double-door entrance. Inside, vandas, tropical lady’s slippers, oncidiums, and cattleyas hang from the rafters and in pots.

Pannill started growing orchids in 1967 and nowadays has help caring for them. “I love my orchids,” she says. “Although I love my other plants, they are the most interesting. People fall in love with them not like plants, but like they do with dogs, cats, or other people.”

Shortly after a local orchid show, a woman stormed into a shop on Palm Beach’s Worth Avenue wanting to buy the same orchids that had just won Pannill five awards. “I want to buy all the same orchids that Mrs. Pannill won her prize with!” said the woman, who could not give the names of the flowers she demanded.

Although many collectors readily admit they are orchidoholics, few seem to be bothered by the grip the flowers have on them. “It’s an addiction that people don’t want to get off,” says Cook. “Even people who decide to cut back don’t get rid of them totally. You get orchids in your blood, and it’s hard to get rid of it. It’s like an infection, and it only takes one plant to get you infected.”

Charlyne Varkonyi Schaub is the home and garden editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

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